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Frugal Road Trip Idea: National Museum of the United States Air Force

Frugal Family Fun: National Museum of United States Air Force

A few weeks ago, we drove to Ohio for an ice-skating competition that Kaitlynn was competing in. Jesse had asked me if we could drive down a day early because he’d heard about this museum in Dayton called the National Museum of the US Air Force that he wanted to check out.

I told Jesse that would work for us to go a day early but I didn’t know whether I’d be able to go since I might be so backlogged on work and projects that I’d need to stay at the hotel. {My full-time assistant was completely offline that week on a hiking trip and one of my other part-time assistants had a baby. So I was in over my head trying to do my normal tasks and projects, blog, and take care of a multitude of extra responsibilities.}

I didn’t want to have to miss out on the museum and time with the family but the reality of having your own business is that there are many blessings and a lot of flexibility, but there are the occasional drawbacks — like weeks when you have to pull double shifts!

Jesse was very understanding as we’d known this very, very busy two week period was coming and I was already having to shift a lot of things around in order to be completely present for Kaitlynn at her competition.Frugal Family Fun: National Museum of United States Air Force

Because I didn’t even think I’d probably get to go to the museum, I didn’t research it at all. In all honesty, what Jesse had told me (“It’s a museum about the USAF and there are a lot of planes.”) didn’t sound all that exciting or interesting. I’m not much of a museum person if it’s just planes or old historical artifacts, so I doubted I would miss much.

However, I really, really wanted to get to go to the museum just to have that fun memory with the kids and Jesse — even if the museum was going to be really boring to me. So I worked late in the evening the night before and was able to get everything done so I could take the afternoon and evening off.

I had asked Jesse that morning, “So how long do you think we’ll be there?” He responded, “I can’t imagine much more than a few hours.” We decided to get to the museum around 1 p.m. since it closed at 5 p.m. and that would give us four hours there. We figured that should be ample time.

Then we pulled up to the museum and realized it was more like a MUSEUM COMPLEX than a museum. In fact, there were four huge buildings and lots and lots of cars and people.

Oops. Apparently it wasn’t the little plane hangar we had envisioned!

Frugal Family Fun: National Museum of United States Air Force

FREE Admission!!

We found a parking spot, trekked inside, and went to buy our tickets to the museum. With how big and nice it looked, I was now concerned that the price of admission was going to be much more than we were expecting. My guess was something like $20-$30 per person. And I was kicking myself that we were only going to be there for four hours if we were going to pay that kind of money to get in.

Imagine our surprise when the guy at the information desk said, “Oh, there’s no admission price. It’s FREE!”

FREE??!! Jesse and I looked at each other and realized that things were off to a good start!

Then, we looked at the map and saw more about what the museum was about. Yes, there were lots and lots and lots of plane, but I was so surprised to see that they had a whole, huge section dedicated to World War II.

If you don’t know, I’m a huge World War II buff. I’ve read countless books and am fascinated by anything to do with that period in history.

FREE + World War II? You better believe I was happy that I came!!

Note: There is a charge for the Air Force Museum Theatre and flight simulators, if you want to do those. Otherwise, everything else is entirely free!

Frugal Family Fun: National Museum of United States Air Force

The Exhibits

Early Years Gallery — The museum started with a history of flight and how planes used in wars in the early days. It was really interesting to see how quickly technology had advanced in such a short amount of time. It was also hard to imagine how scary it must have been to fly some of the early models of planes — especially during the wars.

Korean War GallerySoutheast Asia War GalleryCold War Gallery — We ended up having to skip these exhibits because we didn’t have enough time, but we would have LOVED to have go through these. The little that we saw of them looked amazing and we all agreed wholeheartedly that we wished we had had two days to explore all the exhibits!

Frugal Family Fun: National Museum of United States Air Force

World War II Gallery — We all absolutely loved this exhibit. It was incredibly interesting, very well done, and very informative. And even though I’ve studied and read so much about World War II, I still learned a lot.

We found the section about downed pilots who escaped enemy territory without being caught to be riveting. They showed different methods and means that these pilots used to travel through enemy territory to safety. There were also lots of intriguing facts about prisoners of war and prisoners who escaped.

There was a traveling exhibit dedicated to the Holocaust that was really touching — especially for our kids. For them to see photos and footage of what happened during the Holocaust impacted them in a pretty powerful way.

Frugal Family Fun: National Museum of United States Air ForceFrugal Family Fun: National Museum of United States Air Force

Missile Gallery — This was pretty amazing! To see a sort of real-life Missile Silo and to be standing next to the missiles felt surreal.

Space Gallery — We loved getting to walk inside a full-size representation of a NASA space shuttle payload bay and look inside the CCT-1 cockpit and mid-deck areas. We were shocked at how small the area was for the crew. I can’t fathom being holed up in such a small area for a week or so on a mission with multiple other people!

Frugal Family Fun: National Museum of United States Air Force

Presidential Gallery — Even though we loved the World War II gallery and the other galleries, our excitement was through the roof when we got to the Presidential Gallery. Why? Because we got to walk inside and tour the presidential planes used by Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower as well as the Boeing VC-137C 26000, which was used by eight presidents — Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton!

It was kind of overwhelming to be in the plane that carried John F. Kennedy’s body after he was shot and to think of how we were walking in planes that had carried such high-ranking people who have impacted our country so profoundly. We were pretty much all in awe — even though it was the end of the day and we’d done a lot of walking!
Frugal Family Fun: National Museum of United States Air Force

Frugal Family Fun: National Museum of United States Air Force
Frugal Family Fun: National Museum of United States Air Force

FREE Daily Tours

While I think there’s so much you can learn just by going through the museum yourself, you can learn even more with their numerous tour options. And did I mention all of these are FREE?

Daily Guided Tours — The museum offers free guided tours of the museum daily. These last approximately one hour and 30 minutes. Advance registration is not necessary. Find out more here. 

Self-Guided Tours — You can explore U.S. Air Force history by listening to these podcasts on your computer, in your car, or while walking around the museum galleries! The self-guided audio tours feature specific topics in U.S. Air Force history as they are highlighted throughout the museum’s exhibits. You can download the podcasts before visiting the museum. Find out more here.

Behind-the-Scenes Tours — Behind the Scenes Tours are regularly scheduled, free guided tours of the museum’s restoration area. Participants are shuttled to the restoration hangars, located about one mile from the main museum complex. Tours are offered every Friday (some exceptions) at 12:15 p.m. Advance registration is required. Find out more here.

Frugal Family Fun: National Museum of United States Air Force

Tips For Making the Most of Your Museum Visit

Pack a picnic lunch — You cannot bring outside food or drink inside the museum. You also cannot eat or drink except in designated areas in the museum — such as in the restaurant areas. From what we saw, they were quite strict with these rules.

However, you could definitely pack snacks, drinks, and a picnic lunch and go out to your car to eat it. I didn’t see any picnic tables, but there was a lot of space outside where you could spread out a blanket and have a picnic.

Note: The food at the restaurants was quite expensive from what I saw (you can see some of the prices here). I kind of felt like they had it priced like they did to help cover some of the museum costs. 🙂

Bring a stroller — If you have younger kids, bring a stroller. Even if your youngest is 5 or 6, they will likely tire from all of the walking and it would be easier to push them around so their legs could rest for awhile. Almost the entire museum is stroller-friendly.

Be prepared for lots of walking — Like I alluded to, it’s a HUGE museum with four separate buildings. Wear comfortable shoes and plan to do lots and lots of walking. There are some places where you can sit down and watch various movies about an exhibit, but there weren’t a lot of comfortable places to sit and rest your legs that I saw.

If you needed to take a break, though, you could go sit in the cafe area. You wouldn’t need to purchase anything to sit there and when we were there, it was pretty deserted (however, we were also in there around 3:30 p.m. — so we probably missed the lunch crowds).

Bring your camera — There are no restrictions on taking pictures and, believe me, you will want to take lots of pictures. Or at least I sure did! 🙂

Spend some time researching the museum’s website I wish I had done this! The museum’s website is very comprehensive and detailed and will give you lots of helpful advice to make the most of your visit. I’d also recommend deciding ahead of time which areas you want to spend the most time at. You can’t do it all, so going into it knowing your priority areas will help make sure you actually make time to hit those!

Plan to stay the whole day — We wish we had planned to stay the whole day! There is so much to see and do and we want to go back! If we did it again, we’d plan to go through two buildings, then go back to the car and get some lunch and have a picnic, then come back in and go through the next two buildings.

I think it would take a good 6-8 hours to go through all of the exhibits at a non-rushed pace. This wouldn’t allow us to stop at read all the signs, by any means, but I think 6-8 hours would be enough time to make it through everything and spend some extra time in those areas where your family is most interested.

The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. The museum is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Frugal Road Trip Idea: National Museum of the United States Air Force

More Road Trip Links:

Have any Frugal Road Trip Ideas for our family to explore next?

I’d love to hear! I’m hoping to share more detailed review posts like this of attractions and museums that I think you all might be interested in so leave a comment or shoot me an email if you have a suggestion for other great frugal attractions or museums you think our family should visit!

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  • Bethany M says:

    Thanks for posting this! I’m adding it to our next trip to my parents. Never heard of it!

  • Diane G says:

    So glad your family enjoyed the museum. Our family lives about 45 minutes north of Dayton and try to get to the museum every couple of years as the exibits do change around. It is a neat place :).

  • Emma k says:

    We almost went to this last month when we met friends in Dayton. Instead we went to the Wright Brothers 🙂

    The Junior Ranger program with the National Parks Department is a great frugal activity. We look to see where we are traveling and do the ones nearby.

    Also a somewhat cheaper vacation is the Black Hills in South Dakota. You can get a cabin at Custer State Park for $50 a night or tent camp. Then visit Mount Rushmore, Badlands, Jewel Cave, Wind Cave, lots of fun museums in Rapid City, drive through Custer State Park to see bison. We packed lunches and cooked our own food. It was one of our favorite family vacations and relatively cheap!

  • Janet says:

    Thanks for the thorough review and ideas for visiting. I would say, though, for being the only food allowed inside this (free!) venue, I thought the prices were fair. If you have ever tried to feed a family inside one of the venues in Washington, DC, or even worse, a Disney park, you’d agree that these aren’t bad. If I was planning ahead, it looks like the box lunches for $4.75 are a bargain!

    • Brandette W. says:

      I was thinking the same thing Janet. The prices at their cafes didn’t seem out of reach to me. Sure, they are definitely more expensive then if you made the food and brought. But, for easy food on the go, I thought it was reasonable. Especially considering if you did bring a lunch that needed to sit in your car for hours, your options would be limited because of hot days. Plus, you would get to enjoy eating inside the air conditioning!

    • Christie says:

      I agree! The prices are reasonable-and cheaper than most other attractions.
      There are also tons of restaurants and fast food nearby (5-10 minute drive) if you’d like to take a break from the museum.
      I went to Wright State University which is right next to to Wright Patt AFB where the museum is.
      If you really love airplanes, there’s a Dayton Aviation Trail that takes you to a few different sites where the Wright Brothers got their start. Really interesting stuff!

  • Jenn says:

    I’m so glad you took the opportunity to visit our museum! Please note, the static displays on the grounds are also great! The Security Forces Memorial is especially touching (for those of you who don’t know, the Security Forces are the law enforcement, security, combat arms training, and dog handlers), and behind the facilities are aircraft that have starred in movies. Please, plan 2 days to visit, bring your camera, pack a lunch, visit the gift shop, and take the time to truly visit the museum. Bring your children and make sure to visit the areas dedicated to the Berlin Wall and communism.

  • Mireille says:

    Looks like an awesome place! If we have visit Ohio and that area, we will definitely want to stop by!

  • Jessica says:

    We went back to it on Saturday with all of our kids this time! My 3 year old walked through almost the whole place by herself. My 6 year old got tired but my 9 year old was fine. We skipped the Aviation History Hall of Fame section. The kids loved being able to walk through the planes. I’m not a military or history person, but I am a museum person and this one is so well done.

    We did pack our own lunch, but we live in Columbus so we ate lunch then went into the museum. They did make me dump out my water bottle. There were enough fountains in there though to stay hydrated.

    If you liked the Holocaust section, I would highly recommend visiting the National Museum of the Holocaust in Washington, D.C. I spent an afternoon there about 12 years ago and words cannot do it justice. You need a full day or more for that museum to really take it all in. And you will need a box of tissues.

  • Beth says:

    My husband went to law school at University of Dayton and so this was one of our “cheap dates” and a great place to take our son when he was a toddler during our “lean law school years.” The nice place about being local is that we could see one hangar at a time, rather than really dedicating 6-8 hours all in one day.

    It has a warm place in my heart as well! Glad you enjoyed it!

  • Kristin says:

    My father served in the Air Force and was stationed at Wright Patterson AFB for two tours, so we spent a lot of time at the museum over the years taking visiting family and friends. Fast forward several years and my siblings and I returned recently with our own children and we were amazed at all the updates and expansion. We are hoping to get back there soon! It truly is a gem!

  • Karen D says:

    That is a great museum! My husband loves museums and so we frequent them fairly regularly. I love for our kids to learn about history, science, etc. in a hands on way. Another great museum that we visited this summer on our way to the beach was the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola FL. It is an excellent free museum also and the restaurant in it is pretty cool and not too expensive. It is modeled after a restaurant that the Navy had in the Pacific during WW2.

  • Emily says:

    We love the museum too, and usually bring friends and family to it when they visit. We also like to hit Young’s Jersey Dairy when we are up there. Great ice cream, putt-putt, batting cages, and other fun stuff to do with the family. Plus beautiful hiking trails at John Bryan State Park and Clifton Gorge. Although, after walking around the AF Museum you probably won’t want to go hiking!

    • Christie says:

      Young’s is a great place to take the family! We make the hour drive far more frequently than my waistline needs, but love a full meal at the Golden Jersey Inn followed by going down the bag slides, playing putt putt, or just running around!

  • Kacy says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this! We live in Indiana so this is driving distance and I’ve never even heard of it! Can’t wait to go!

  • Clare Colon says:

    A similar museum highlighting the history of U.S. Naval Aviation is in our hometown of Pensacola, Florida. It is also free. And it’s also really close to our beautiful beaches with sugar white sand and crystal blue water. 🙂

  • Whitney says:

    Cool story: My grandfather was in the USAF and did security for Air Force One during JFK and LBJ! He briefly helped carry JFK’s body….and was there when LBJ got sworn in!

  • Kim says:

    I’m not sure if this is exactly what you are looking for but we have a blog about kid-friendly activities in the Colorado Springs area. I think you are here somewhat frequently? Anyway we’ve covered very small museums such as the Peterson Air and Space Museum and the visitors center at the Air Force Academy:
    Bonus- both are free!
    And if you take a road trip to CS there’s A LOT to do that’s free or very cheap!

  • Jennifer says:

    We love the AF museum! We’re in Indianapolis, so it is only a few hour drive there, and we normally stay all day. The food is very reasonable for museum food.

    We’re planning a trip in the next month or so to see how the Presidential Wing has changed since the last time we were there (you used to have to sign up to take a bus onto the base to go to a special hangar that didn’t have very good air conditioning and it was a huge pain).

    We tell everyone we know that is in the area to make a trip out there.

  • Ashlee says:

    My hometown! We always take the kids when we go home to visit family. Such a great place.

  • Jenny says:

    We went there with our 3 young children (5 and under) this spring on vacation and it happened to be a homeschool day so there was a story time too. A very nice place to visit!

  • Mary says:

    I’m an Air Force brat (my dad was in the Air Force and that’s just the lingo!) and I had no idea there was such a museum. That was very cool to read.

  • Kellie Estep says:

    I live in Cincinnati so this is a quick and easy day trip for us. I’ve been there when I was a kid but haven’t been back since because I’m the same way its a museum and a historical one at that which doesn’t really peak my interest. But I do love making memories with my children and I have 2 little boys ages 5 & 2 and I know they would love this, thank you for reminding me of this hometown treasure. I’m going to take my boys up there here soon. They will just love it!

  • Balorie says:

    You were in my neck of the woods. I live about 10 min from here. ? We’ve done several homeschool field trips to the museum. We’re looking forward to going again and seeing the new presidental hanger this fall.
    Glad to see you enjoyed it.

  • Trina says:

    Thanks for sharing this! We are planning a trip to the Creation Museum and Ark soon. Were planning on going to this museum too!

  • Trina says:

    Thanks for sharing this! We are planning a trip to the Creation Museum and Ark soon. Were planning on going to this museum too!

  • Mel says:

    Great review! We love the USAF Museum, as well. Each year in September, the USAF Marathon (full, half, and 10k) is hosted there. The huge aircraft line the finish line. It is an awesome race, but often sells out early. We run our races and then enjoy the museum with the kids. It’s a great tradition!

  • Victoria says:

    I can’t believe we haven’t gone here yet. My husband is a huge world war one and two history buff (he also loves reading about the civil war). I will have to mention it to him. I see a date day in our future, then bring the kids the second time around since Dayton really isn’t that far from where we live.

  • Jen says:

    Other ideas….
    Many free hints in Philly and DC.
    If you Roadtrip from Nashville you can do Gettysburg along with those areas. Places in Lancaster, PA are fun too. Their Hands On House and Science Center are favs to us, and various memberships we have had over the years got us in for free. For example a year membership at Philly’s Please Touch got us a free visit in Baltimore, Lancaster and Pittsburgh that year.
    A random Nature Center Memebrship from Groupon ($25) got my kids discounted camps and we were going to do the Botanical Gardens in Phoenix, but time did not allow (and was going to be $$$$$ fo the larger than expected group that was joining us.

    Other tips
    – ask you hotel if they have vouchers for local attractions. Many hotels get freebies and it is just a matter of asking.
    – local parks are always fun to explore. A camp my kids did took a week exploring parks and making a report card for each one, it was fun for the kids – best field for whiffle ball, clean bath rooms, picnic area, water source,…
    – check local transit websites, many have a tourist deal that may make the day cheaper and give you free transportation in lieu of pricey parking. I know Philly has a deal you can take into the city, then ride the trolley around. For a family of 4 it may be @$25 a day.
    – City Cards you can buy in advance can be nice if you want to hit multiple attractions in one day. Boston card is currently on LivingSocial or Groupon
    – Amtrak kids 1/2 price is good. With advance booking and watching deals my family can travel it NYC or DC for less than $100. I love the trouble free Amtrak travel and the kids still love the train – no road rage!

  • TG says:

    Just as a note for people in other parts of the country, there is a smaller air force museum also in Utah, just outside Hill AFB. it is also free, and my kids have enjoyed it, although they only last about 2 hours usually. The museum in Utah has a section dedicated to the Vietnam War. I do recommend glancing through that particular section before taking younger kids into the section as it has a couple parts that may be disturbing for younger kids.

  • PW says:

    Great tips – if you are going to be in town for a full day there is a free passport program where children earn a cute Wilbear Wright teddy bear for visiting aviation sites around Dayton. The Air Force Museum has two stamps and the Huffman Flying Field (NPS) and Wright State Archives are right there too. With a quick trip downtown to grab a meal or coffee and a stop at the downtown National Park campus (Wright Brothers Cycle Shop) – you can be done and have a great (and FREE) souvenir. Here’s the link. I did it with my two kids last summer. All the stops including the museum have the passports on site.!trailsites/c138d

  • Angie H. says:

    Thanks for the great review of the Museum. As a member of NAHA (National Aviation Heritage Area), visit Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum. Here you’ll find the resting place of Orville and Wilbur Wright, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Erma Bombeck, Charles Kettering, John H. Patterson and over 108,000 people who made it Great ‘n Dayton.

  • Dineen Ford says:

    I grew up in Dayton. I cannot express the all-kinds-of-wonderful I felt being able to take my daughter there while visiting during our trip home last Thanksgiving. Watching my husband show our daughter planes “like your Grandpa Jim learned on” and more as he worked for Douglas Aircraft during WWII and after was more than priceless.
    As you said, it’s more than just a bunch of airplanes.

  • Jennie says:

    My husband and I went to Dayton for our anniversary one year. One day we went to the Air Force Museum. We were so excited that it happened to be a day when they had a free concert in one of the hangars that night by an Air Force band. What a great treat! We also stumbled upon the 2nd Street Market, a fun farmer’s market type place. And it was St. Patrick’s Day, so there were a few different musical groups singing and dancing. All for free too! : )

  • Vicky Atkinson says:

    My husband and I visited the museum in May when the Memphis Belle was debuted. I was like you and not sure I would really enjoy it. Boy, was I wrong!! The historical displays were so well done. We spent all day there!

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